Best Kayaking in Kentucky: Where to Kayak in the Bluegrass State

When you think about the best destinations in the U.S. to go paddling, kayaking in Kentucky probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind.

But wait until you see just how many amazing and unique places there are to get out on the water.

Thanks to its many rivers, lakes, and cave systems, Kentucky offers unique paddling experiences unlike any other state in the country. 

Below, we’ve compiled a list of the best places to go kayaking in Kentucky—places that will have you dreaming of the next time you can visit the Bluegrass State!  

15 Best Places to Go Kayaking in Kentucky

1. Elkhorn Creek 

Elkhorn Creek 
Image: Blue-Eyed Kentucky 

Located just a short drive from Frankfort, Elkhorn Creek is an amazing spot for beginners to get their paddles wet and experience the delight of paddling up/downriver. When the time comes to get more adventurous, you can tackle the whitewater rapids (don’t worry, there are newbie-friendly sections, too!). 

But you’re not just here to paddle. You can also bring a fishing rod and bait, and spend the day angling for the smallmouth bass that call the creek home. It’s one of the most relaxing and enjoyable paddling trips you’ll take!

2. Mammoth Cave National Park 

Experienced paddlers cannot leave Kentucky without taking a trip through Mammoth Cave National Park! This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the world’s longest cave system, and the Green River cuts through some of these caves (as well as the rest of the park) to offer you a truly unforgettable underground paddling experience. Just make sure you’ve got a headlamp or lantern because it’s pitch black for long stretches at a time.

Or, if you’re not yet ready to brave the caves, just enjoy paddling around them in the beauty of nature. There are multiple routes you can take, including 7- and 12-mile stretches, and you can rent kayaks right outside the national park. 

3. Harrods Creek

Harrods Creek Waterfall

Harrods Creek is another long-running waterway that offers a variety of thrills and challenges for paddlers of all skill levels. For those who want to enjoy a slow, lazy day of drifting, there are plenty of stretches where you can kick back and let the current take you along. But when you want to really experience everything the creek has to offer, you can paddle through the gorgeous pool, down the rapids, up the small stream, and even toward the breathtaking waterfall.

All the while, you’ll get to enjoy the beauty of wildlife on all sides, including the herons native to this part of Kentucky. 

4. The Ohio River 

There are few things more enjoyable than paddling through the heart of a city—you get to enjoy the beauty of nature and a relaxing day out on the water, surrounded by the man-made sights and sounds of the concrete jungle. On the Ohio River, you can paddle through the heart of iconic Louisville, enjoying breathtaking views of the city skyline at sunset. 

The Ohio River

But if you’re more of a nature-lover than city-goer, there are plenty of options, too. Six Mile Island State Preserve is an 81-acre island and wildlife preserve where you can see hundreds of different animals in their natural habitat. Paddle upstream, and you’ll eventually reach Harrod’s Creek. Follow the river the full 133 miles downstream to cross state lines and reach the city of Cincinnati, Ohio.

5.  Red River Gorge

Red River Gorge
Image: OutdoorProject

There are few places to kayak quite like the Red River Gorge! You’ll kayak down a river that traverses a series of caves, allowing you to explore the darkness in a group or on a solo adventure. For those who are really feeling brave, try it on a SUP.

Red River Gorge was once a limestone quarry but flooded years ago. All the better for you to enjoy paddling through a truly unique system of caves!

Whitewater kayakers can also try their hand at the rapids—largely Class I, but with some Class II and III runs. 

6. Grayson Lake

Grayson Lake
Image: OnlyInYourState

Grayson Lake is one of Kentucky’s most beautiful destinations, a 1,500-acre reservoir bordered by towering sandstone cliffs and miles of secluded beaches that can only be accessed via the water. You’ll find it’s a beginner-friendly destination, calm and warm throughout most of the day (with only a few hours of wind-stirred chop and current).

But the truly spectacular part of this adventure is the grotto carved by the water into the sandstone cliffs. Access to the grotto is so narrow you can only paddle through one kayak at a time, and it leads through a gorgeous cave system with spectacular outcroppings of rock. On the other side is a hidden waterfall, which you can enjoy from the pool below or even hike up to in order to take in the views from above.

Anglers will love the various fish species that call the lake home—including bass, trout, crappie, and bluegill.  

7. Lake Barkley

Lake Barkley
Image: Marinas.com

Be warned: there are a lot of motorized boats out on the waters of Lake Barkley, so you’ll have to be prepared for the occasional engine-created swells. However, given its size—a whopping 58,000 acres—you should have no trouble finding your own secluded corner of the lake to enjoy a calm, relaxing paddling session.

The water is typically flat and calm, great for newbies or anyone who wants to just kick back and enjoy a day in the sun. There are also lots of lovely little creeks and coves that you can explore, so you’ll feel like a true adventurer. And when the day is over and you want to rest for the night, there are plenty of spots in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area where you can rent a spot to make camp.

8. Parklands of Floyds Fork

Parklands of Floyds Fork
Image: Joseph&Joseph

This is the perfect destination for a short, relaxing afternoon paddling session after a hot day of exploring the other sights and sounds Kentucky has to offer. The waterway runs through farm lands, highland meadows, lowland forests of towering sycamore trees, and buildings boasting an artistic contemporary design. With the rolling breeze for company, you’re in for a truly unforgettable experience.

This particular destination is ideal for kids and new paddlers who aren’t yet accustomed to more challenging waterways. There are a few Class I rapids and obstacles to present more experienced paddlers with a challenge, just in case you want to spice things up. But nature lovers will fall head over heels for the turtles sunning on the rocks, the frogs singing on the shore, and the fish swimming in the clear water.

9. Cumberland River

As one of Kentucky’s major rivers, it’s no surprise that the Cumberland river offers myriad paddling destinations. Spanning just under 700 miles, it’s home to calm river paddling and whitewater kayaking both, and you’ll find yourself basking in the beauty of nature in the forests and hills bordering the river.

Cumberland River

Paddlers can put in at Red Bird Boat Ramp near Williamsburg, and enjoy a 17-mile trip downriver to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park. There are plenty of nearby spots to rent kayaks (and canoes and SUPs) for the day, too.

10. Grassy Creek

Grassy Creek whitewater river

Of course, this list has to feature some hot spots for experienced adventure kayakers! Grassy Creek is the go-to for whitewater paddlers who want to tackle a real challenge: Class IV+ rapids. Trust me, these narrow rapids are for experts only; not for the faint of heart.

But don’t think that you’ll be bored if you’re not up for whitewater kayaking. Grassy Creek is also home to Russel Fork lake, where you can enjoy smallmouth bass and bluegill fishing, bird spotting, and wildlife viewing. There are plenty of spots to camp, too!

11. Drakes Creek

A man with an orange paddle is kayaking on Drakes Creek river
Image: Countryside Food Rides

Anglers, pack your poles and head out to Drakes Creek, a calm, slow-moving waterway chock full of smallmouth bass and other fish. Expect a relaxing day on the water, but you’ve got a great chance of coming home with a cooler full of fresh-caught river fish.

RELATED: Best River Fishing Kayaks

The river run is on the shorter side—roughly six miles from the Romanza Johnson Park launch point to the take-out at Phil Moore Park—but you’ll love every minute you spend on it.

12. McNeely Lake Park

McNeely Lake Park is the perfect place for the whole family—and even your pets, too! That’s right: there’s a local dog park where your fur-buddy can play all day long and enjoy fun in the sun with fellow dogs. 

When the time comes to head out on the water, you’ll find the lake is largely calm and home to a variety of fish (including the lovely red ear sunfish). You can paddle out into the middle of the lake to enjoy the sunshine in all its glory, or stay near the shore to watch the local wildlife and birds. There are also plenty of hiking trails to keep you entertained if you want to take a break from the water. Truly, it’s a spectacular day on one of Kentucky’s most gorgeous lakes!

13. Rough River Lake

Rough River Lake
Image: Genuine Kentucky

Get ready for a truly unforgettable lake day. Rough River Lake is home to spectacular limestone caverns and walls, many of which can only be explored via kayak or SUP. There are plenty of challenges for more experienced paddlers to tackle (including narrow cliff-lined creeks and inlets), but beginners will find the lake is calm enough for even their skill level. For those who hate motor-boat traffic, there are plenty of protected areas where you can enjoy paddling on your own, no wakes or swells.

Anglers also flock to this lake, with plenty of walleye, bass, and crappie to catch. You can also enjoy swimming around the various beaches and camping with your family. One day is more than enough to see everything this smaller-sized lake has to offer, but you’ll love every moment you spend exploring its many delights. 

14. Rockcastle River

A man paddles a red kayak on Rockcastle River
Image: Explore Kentucky

Whitewater kayakers, this is the challenge for you! With seven different rapids—ranging from Class II to Class IV—you’ll race through giant boulders, down narrowed stretches, and hydraulics that will challenge your skills to the max. The presence of real danger is part of what makes it a truly thrilling experience you’ll find nowhere else. The Lower Narrows is also home to challenging waters, including a few drops that will send your heart leaping into your throat. 

But if you want to kick back and relax after the intense experience, there are stretches of flat, calm water you can paddle at a slower pace. 

15. Benson Creek

Bob Larkin running Benson Falls
Image: American Whitewater

Yet another adventure destination for thrill-seeking paddlers, Benson Creek offers access to a stretch of Class II rapids that runs around 5 miles (from Kentucky 1005 to the Kentucky River). Tackle it all in one exhilarating go or take a break at the many rest spots along the way. Enjoy the scenery and the wildlife surrounding the fast-flowing river, because it will fly by FAST.

Kayaking Tours in Kentucky

Welcome to Kentucky sign

As exciting as it can be to explore the many waterways, rivers, and lakes of Kentucky on your own, there will be places that are best explored in a group—or, at the very least, with an experienced guide.

For example:

Did you know that at the Grayson Lake grotto, the waterway narrows so much that you have to disassemble your paddle in order to navigate it? 

Or:

The keeper hydraulic in Rockcastle River is dangerous enough you could get caught there and drown if you don’t approach it just right?

If you’re planning a more adventure-oriented trip—such as whitewater kayaking or exploring underground caves—you’ll want to go with people who have experience with that particular adventure. It’s the best way to stay safe and avoid getting lost!

But there’s also the fact that locals who live near and regularly kayak these waterways will know of all the hidden, secret locations and the best tricks for catching the fish that inhabit their rivers and lakes. It just makes sense to consider a kayaking tour in Kentucky if you really want to get the full experience!

A few tours to consider include:

SUP Kentucky (tours of the Red River Gorge on both SUPs and crystal-bottomed kayaks)

The Gorge Underground (tours of the Red River Gorge in crystal-bottomed kayaks, available for children, too)

KY River and Buffalo Trace Tour (tour of the Kentucky River with a look at the world-famous Buffalo Trace Distillery, home to some of Kentucky’s finest bourbons) 

Canoe Kentucky (rentals + guided trips on the Kentucky River)

KY Rafting (multi-day canoe and kayak tours on the Cumberland River and Big South Fork River)

The Waterman Series (organizers of local races and events)

Green River Canoeing (canoeing and kayaking tours of the Green River)

More great resources to check out for kayak tours in Kentucky include:

  • Trip AdvisorSearch on Trip Advisor for “bodies of water” in Kentucky, and find the ideal kayaking locations near the city where you’ll be traveling. You can find access to plenty of information, as well as resources to rent kayaks or take kayak tours.
  • Google Maps Just input “kayak tours in Kentucky” or “kayaking in Kentucky” on Google Maps, and you’ll find plenty of options in each city you intend to visit.
  • YelpOn Yelp, you can not only find a list of kayak tours, but read real-life reviews from people who’ve participated in the tours and enjoyed them (or not!). It’s a great way to narrow down your options to the absolute best choices for your prospective kayaking trip.

Tips for Safely Kayaking in Kentucky

A man paddles a blue and yellow kayak  on Green River in Mammoth Cave National Park
Image: KentuckyBB

Kayaking in Kentucky gives you the chance to explore underground cave systems and tackle whitewater rapids. While a truly memorable experience, there are also dangers unique to these specific conditions. It’s important to prioritize your safety and be smart with the trips you plan.

Here are some tips that will help you safely kayak in Kentucky:

Know Your Waters

Be aware that many of the slower-moving, beginner-friendly rivers can lead to rapids that will challenge even experienced whitewater kayakers. It’s important that you take the time to research the waterways you plan to paddle in order to know what to expect. Have a look at our interactive map of places to go paddling nearby.

For example, maybe you’re a novice taking your first trips out on a kayak. You definitely don’t want to drift down into even Class I rapids because you’re not ready to handle it. Or maybe you’re an experienced paddler who’s mastered Class II and III rapids, but there is the possibility that you’ll end up in Class IV+ rapids farther downriver.

By being prepared and thoroughly researching the waterways you intend to paddle, you’ll know how to avoid dangers.

Choose the Right Season

You can kayak in Kentucky pretty much all year long, because the winters don’t get too fiercely cold. However, it’s important to know that paddling conditions aren’t the same throughout the year.

For example, during the early spring, the water levels in creeks and rivers may be lower than at other times in the year. Some rivers are “flatwater” earlier in the year, but turn into much faster-flowing waterways later in the year.

Kentucky waterways also feature a number of dam systems that release water at pre-determined intervals throughout the year. You need to know what these intervals are in order to predict the water levels. 

Check Conditions First

Before heading anywhere to paddle, make sure to check all the conditions—both weather forecast and water levels.

As mentioned above, Kentucky’s waterways are unique in that the dam systems have much more precise control over water levels. This actually makes it possible to accurately calculate what water levels will be at throughout the year. Sites like the USGS National Water Information System can give you to-the-day information to help you plan the ideal paddling trip.

And, of course, you want to keep an eye on the weather. Storms and heavy rains can turn even calm rivers and creeks into potentially hazardous waterways, and can make navigating cave systems tricky (even dangerous). 

Dress for the Water

Kentucky’s lakes and rivers are warm enough that you can enjoy paddling them throughout most of the year, but be aware that during the winter months, water temperatures can plummet low enough to cause hypothermia. If you’re going to kayak all year long, make sure to have a wetsuit handy for the coldest months. Also, see our detailed post on what to wear while kayaking.

Pack the Proper Gear

Being equipped for your kayaking trip in Kentucky goes beyond just a fully functional kayak and proper PFD. You’ve also got to pack plenty of water to stay hydrated during the heat of the day, and basic emergency and first aid supplies to deal with any injuries. If you’re paddling rivers or anywhere far from civilization, it’s a good idea to consider bringing a GPS device, a long-range radio/walkie-talkie, and enough emergency supplies (tent, rations, etc.) to survive a day or two in the wilderness.

Kayak Safely

  • Never kayak while drunk or on drugs—you could end up in far more dangerous situations without realizing it if your attention is compromised.
  • Never paddle in “flood” conditions or if the river/creek level is too high (deemed “unsafe” by local experts and tour guides).
  • Make sure your equipment is in good working condition before heading out on the water. 
  • Scout unfamiliar waters first. 
  • Kayak to your skill level. Don’t try to take on a challenge you’re not ready for.
  • Never exceed the weight capacity for your kayak.

Get Local Input

Even if you prefer solo paddling over going with a tour, it’s a good idea to talk to locals and scour internet forums for information about whatever river or lake you plan to paddle. Each waterway has its own unique challenges and potential hazards that the general public may not be aware of. Spend time researching directly from the people who actually know the conditions where you’ll be kayaking. 

When In Doubt, Don’t 

If you’re ever hesitant to enter a cave or take on a section of rapids you’re not certain about, always choose your safety first. 

(Note: For those occasions when you really want to try something new, it may be worth going on a tour or hiring a guide to lend their expertise. Better safe than sorry!)

Inform Others of Your Paddle Plan

Whether you’re taking a short tour through the caves of Mammoth Cave National Park or navigating the 700-mile-long Cumberland River, it’s important that someone knows where you are or should be at all times. That way, if you ever fail to arrive at your destination or check in at the appointed time, they can call emergency services out to find you. It could save your life in case of serious injury or getting lost.

Be Wary of Wildlife

Kentucky is home to some dangerous wildlife, including snakes (the Western cottonmouth, rattlesnakes, and copperheads), black widow spiders, coyotes, and black bears. Be aware of these animals when out in nature, and take precautions to avoid and protect yourself against them.

Be Wary of Other Boats

Many of the Kentucky lakes and rivers are popular fishing and boating spots for larger motorized vessels. Larger boats may have a harder time spotting kayaks, so it’s in your best interest to be aware of—and steer clear of—these potential hazards. Assume that you never have the right of way, and you’ll always be safer when around larger, motorized boats. 

Kentucky Kayaking Laws

It’s important to know the rules and regulations for every state you intend to visit, and kayaking in Kentucky is no exception!

According to Kentucky laws:

Kayaks are non-motor powered vessels

Because of this, there is no need to register your kayak. Nor do you need to obtain a special license to operate a kayak on any Kentucky waterways. 

(Note: If you operate your kayak with a trolling motor, you will need to register it.) 

There is no minimum age for operating a kayak 

The only age restrictions are for motorized vessels; you have to be 12 or older to operate a motorized boat with 10 hp or more. This doesn’t apply to kayaks, though, so even your young children can join you on your paddling trip. 

Kayakers must have one lifejacket on board per person

PFD (of the right size and in serviceable condition) is mandatory on all waterways. Children under 12 years old have to actually wear the PFD while paddling. Anyone older can simply keep the PFD on board their kayak to use in case of an emergency.

Kayakers must carry lights between sunrise and sunset

During periods of “restricted visibility”, paddlers must have an onboard light, lantern, flashlight, or headlamp. Green and red bow lights are recommended “if practical”, but not required.

Note: Kayakers aren’t required to carry any sound-producing equipment, but it’s recommended that you carry a whistle or air horn as means of signalling in emergency situations.

Kayaks must carry visual distress signals (VDS)

During the day, manually propelled vessels (like kayaks) don’t need to carry any VDS. At night, however, they must have at least one VDS (including flares (smoke, meteor, and handheld) and distress lights) to signal for help in emergency situations.

RELATED: How to Kayak at Night: Useful Tips for Nighttime Paddling

Kayakers absolutely can get a BUI

“Boating Under Influence” is the kayaker’s equivalent of a DUI. Even though your vessel isn’t motorized, you are still required to avoid alcohol, drugs, or any other sort of influence while paddling. 

If your breath or blood alcohol level is above 0.08% (typically after 1-2 drinks, depending on your size), you can get a BUI ticket. 

 The penalties for a BUI are:

  • $200 to $250 fine on the first offense
  • $350 to $500 fine on the second offense
  • $600 to $1,000 fine, and/or at least 30 days in jail on the third offense

All offenders will also be required to complete mandatory boating safety courses every time. 

Kayaking in Kentucky FAQs

A man paddles a yellow kayak in whitewater
Image: ExploreKentucky

Do you have to license a kayak in Kentucky?

You do not! Because kayaks do not have a built-in/attached motor, they do not count as “motorized vessels” and can operate without a permit.

That being said, if your kayak has a trolling motor attached and you intend to use it (for fishing or navigating the waterways), you will have to register it. 

Can you carry a gun on a kayak in Kentucky?

This question is a good one to consider if you plan on bringing your own firearm for some kayak hunting in Kentucky. 

In Kentucky, there is no need to obtain a  “Concealed Carry of a Deadly Weapon” license. 

According to the Kentucky State Police website, “Any person over 21, who is eligible to lawfully possess a firearm, under state and federal law may carry concealed deadly weapons, concealed on or about his or her person. Persons under age 21 may be eligible to possess a firearm, but are not allowed to carry the firearm (or other deadly weapon) concealed in Kentucky. Persons who are over 21, but not eligible to lawfully possess a firearm, may be legally eligible to possess other deadly weapons, but they are not permitted to carry any deadly weapon concealed, under Kentucky law.”

Even if you’re visiting Kentucky from out of state, “Any person who is eligible to possess a firearm under the laws of the United States and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, is permitted to carry a concealed firearm or other concealed deadly weapon in Kentucky, without regard to their citizenship or state of residence.”

Can you drink alcohol on a kayak in Kentucky?

You cannot! 

In Kentucky, waterways (lakes and rivers) are considered “public places”, and drinking in public places is not permitted.

Also, operating a boat (motorized or not) with a blood alcohol level higher than 0.08% legally makes you “impaired” and a violation of Kentucky state laws.

What to wear kayaking in a Kentucky cave?

  1. Clothing that you don’t mind getting wet. You won’t need a wetsuit, but pants/shorts and shirts made of quick-drying synthetic fabrics are ideal for kayaking. 
  2. Warmer clothing, including long-sleeved shirts, pants, and even a jacket. The air and water in the caves are both colder than average, so it’s likely you will get cold while you’re inside the caves. However, make sure you can easily remove these additional layers because the air/water outside the caves will be hot/warm. 
Andrew Peloquin

Andrew is a sports enthusiast, fitness nut, and avid kayaker and paddleboarder who loves nothing more than spending his free time out on the water. He spends his winters snowshoeing, snowboarding, and dreaming of summer days when he can take his beloved 14-footer fishing kayak out to explore the 1,000+ lakes and rivers within driving distance of his home in central British Columbia, Canada.

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